Routine flushing of household water pipes helps you get the lead out


You get up in the morning, stagger into the kitchen, hold the kettle under the faucet, turn on the water. Heat the water on the stove. Make baby a bottle: formula, warm water and a little lead.

Lead is a metal -- cheap, malleable, long-lasting and corrosion-resistant. It's also highly toxic. At high doses, lead causes severe damage to the brain, kidneys, nervous system and red blood cells.

Nothing new there. We've known that for centuries.

But here's what's new: Low levels of lead -- levels HALF AS HIGH as the current Environmental Protection Agency limit -- are enough to permanently lower children's IQs. It turns out that children and fetuses are more susceptible because their brains and nervous systems are still developing and because their bodies are so much smaller.

Recent studies show that "children who had moderately elevated lead levels in early childhood later exhibited sevenfold increases in school dropout rates, sixfold increases in reading disabilities and lower final high-school class standing" though they showed no overt symptoms of blood poisoning.

How many children are affected by lead? Seventeen percent of preschoolers in this country alone. They get the lead from house dust, from the air, from food and in their drinking water. My next column addresses house dust, the single biggest source of lead. This one tackles drinking water.

The water that leaves your municipal plant is generally lead free. By the time it flows from your kitchen tap into your baby's bottle, it probably has lead in it. Here's why:

* Your service line, the pipe that carries water from the street to your house, may contain lead. Until 1986, Chicago's plumbing code specified lead for service lines. Seattle has never had lead service lines. Other cities, such as Washington, D.C., have some lead, and some galvanized, service lines, and patchy records of who has what.

* Some pre-1930 houses and apartments have lead plumbing pipes throughout the inside of the house.

* The copper pipes in most houses plumbed before, say, 1985, are soldered with lead solder. Congress banned lead solder in 1986.

* Brass fixtures -- usually coated with chrome on the outside -- contain as much as 8 percent lead.

Water that sits in any of these pipes gradually becomes contaminated with lead. How much lead your water picks up depends on a number of factors. "Soft" water is more corrosive than "hard" water and picks up more lead. Hot water picks up more than cold. Telephone wires may be grounded to your pipes, causing them to give up more lead. Newer pipes and fixtures give up more lead than older ones. That's because, over time, water gradually deposits a layer of minerals that coats the inside of your pipes. This helps protect you from lead.

There is only one way to know for sure whether you have dangerous amounts of lead in your drinking water: Have your water tested.

First, contact your water utility. It can recommend a lab that is EPA- or state-certified. The test will cost between $20 and $100.

The lab should supply two one-liter containers. Fill one with first-draw water, water that has stood in the pipes at least six hours. Then turn on the water full blast and let it run until it turns colder. This flushes the system of all the water that has been sitting in the pipes overnight and brings in fresh water from the street. Now fill the other container.

If the tests show that the lead levels in your first-draw water sample are 15 parts per billion or higher, you have a lead problem. If you have small children, consult your pediatrician. He or she may want to test your children's blood lead level.

If the lead levels drop below 15 parts per million in the second sample, then flushing works and you should always do so. This means flushing the system every morning, or any time you need drinking or cooking water after you have not run water for more than six hours.

Once you have flushed the water through the system, fill a few bottles and the kettle so that you don't have to do it again that day. You can also save the water you are flushing and use it to water plants, wash clothes, rinse dishes or anything else. Just don't drink it or cook with it. Never use hot tap water for cooking or drinking and never fill a baby bottle with hot water from the tap. Heat flushed cold water in a kettle or microwave.

If you live in a large apartment building, you may not be able to flush the water through your pipes. If you have a lead problem, you'll have to resort to either bottled water or a special filter.

If the second, flushed water sample does not have a safe lead level, call your water utility for advice. Bottled water for drinking and cooking is one option. Consult Consumer Reports for help in picking a bottler, because some studies indicate that bottled water may have problems, too.

Some filters will take lead out of tap water, but they are expensive, their effectiveness varies and they require maintenance. And don't forget: If you install one in the kitchen, it's not going to help you if you drink from the bathroom tap or use ice cubes from an automatic ice maker. According to the EPA, carbon, sand and cartridge filters do not remove lead. Reverse osmosis devices and distillation units do. Find out what your state health department recommends.

One more thing. Teach your children never to stick a cup under a tap and turn it on. Keep a little thermos or sipper cup of water handy for them, if they are little. Teach them about flushing the system if they are older. You can time how long this takes, and teach them to count -- to 30, 50 or whatever it takes. They may find it boring, but it'll be less boring than repeating sixth grade.

For more information on lead in drinking water, call your local water utility.

(Questions? Comments? Address them to the Household Environmentalist, Box 121, 1463 E. Republican, Seattle, Wash. 98112.)

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